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Reviewed by:
  • New Approaches to Medieval Architecture
  • Judith Collard
Bork, Robert, William W. Clark, and Abby McGehee, eds, New Approaches to Medieval Architecture (AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, 8) Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback; pp. 258; 66 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £65.00; ISBN 9781409422280.

Over the last three decades, the writing of architectural history has expanded not only to include social history but also to embrace new technologies and their potential to change our understandings of historical architecture and, indeed, our visual perceptions of these buildings. A more nuanced historiography has emerged, moving beyond the modernist analysis of style, to include workshop practices, patronage, and the functions that these structures performed in society. This collection consists of sixteen essays originally presented at AVISTA-sponsored conference sessions between 2007 and 2009 and ably and succinctly represents several of these trends. AVISTA itself was founded in 1984 by a group of scholars, including Jean Gimpel, all interested in the connections between art, science, and technology, and has consistently been at the centre of discussions about interpretation and interdisciplinarity. The book is divided into four sections: a reassessment of the master narratives of medieval architecture; patronage and institutional contexts; geometry and workshop practices; and the role of new technologies.

For me, one of the most thought-provoking lines of enquiry is that of examining a building diachronically. To study a building at its point of origin, recreating the original designs of the builders and the initial objectives of its patrons can ignore its later significance. It could be argued that to study the construction of the work is to study its prehistory. While its emergence out of a particular cultural and social context is important, a building’s life beyond this is also of interest. Nicola Camerlenghi, in his essay ‘The Longue Durée and the Life of Buildings’, argues a fourth dimensional approach to the examination of a building. In it he uses such useful examples as Hagia Sophia and the impact of this building’s changing roles as it moved from church to mosque to museum. He also includes the example of Old St Peter’s and New St Peter’s: both buildings are of great importance historically, both occupied [End Page 195] the same site, and both are expressive of quite different cultural values. Camerlenghi makes the important point that, for medieval buildings, it is as much later perceptions of their relevance or their adaption to changing needs that are of tangible significance for their survival, remodelling, or demolition.

Stephen Murray’s ‘Back to Beauvais (2009)’ looks at the ongoing problems in the stability of this notorious cathedral, the insights gained from recent investigations, and the impact of public perceptions on its preservation. Other essays in this section include one by Vasileios Marinis, who, using Byzantine examples from after the ninth century, challenges two common assumptions about churches. He argues that the assumptions that they firstly were primarily built to accommodate liturgy and that there was an explicit connection between architectural form and liturgical practice, and secondly that the original use of a space takes precedence and overshadows later usage, are misleading. He also cautions the reader against extrapolating universal principles from conclusions drawn from such studies as Thomas F. Matthew’s The Early Churches of Constantinople (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971) that focused on buildings from a specific region or era.

The second section focuses on patronage and institutional and architectural contexts. William Clark and Thomas Waldeman have collaborated to disentangle the chronology of Saint-Denis under Abbot Suger, drawing on charters, building archaeology, and manuscripts produced in the Abbey to produce a new timeline. Michael Reeves meanwhile challenges the reputation for innovation given to Henry III’s Great Halls, pointing to the influence of the Great Halls found in bishops’ palaces.

Villard de Honnecourt – who has been an inspiration for AVISTA since its founding – is the subject of two studies in this collection. Carl Barnes looks at discussions about the identity of this enigmatic figure, through examination of the evidence provided by his famous sketchbook. Once again dismissing his identification as an architect, closer attention to the drawings of Cambrai...


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pp. 195-197
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